Chapter 18

The afternoon wore on, the sun passing over and into the west but I hardly noticed; I was getting a lot accomplished. It wasn't until I had to put dinner back yet again that I started to worry. I called down to the farm twice and all I was told was that there wasn't anything to worry about, that Mark would be along directly. I was about to call down there again when Micah showed up.

"Del, don't flip a switch. Mark is on his way up, he's just had a hard day."

Looking at my brother I suspected that he meant "bad" rather than "hard" but I was prepared to let Mark explain. I knew I was being "managed" and didn't appreciate it. I also knew however that whatever it was must have been something for the people that knew me best to try and do something so stupid.

"Dinner is in the warmer if you want some," I told Micah. My brother blanched a little; I guess he didn't trust me … of course he had good reason to beware. But about that time I spied Mark coming into the yard from the road. A nine percent incline up a long road takes a while to recover from but it was more than that that had Mark quiet.

Micah quickly entered the cabin and disappeared which was weird. My first thought was that the two men in my life had come to loggerheads somehow although that didn't quite seem to fit the situation either.

I looked at Mark and he looked at me. He knew that I knew something was up. I knew whatever was up had badly upset him to the point of shaking him up. His walls were up and he did not have the look of a man that was too happy to see me.

"I'll get dinner on the table," I told him. Whatever was going on I knew that he had to be the one to tell me and explain. If I had to ask him to explain … well it just didn't bode well for our future.

"I'm not hungry."

I made the mistake of trying to coax him into doing what I wanted. "You've worked all day, you need to eat," I said to him in an unfortunately sweet voice.

"Dang it Del, I'm not hungry!" he snarled. Then he stopped, having startled himself as well as me with the tone he used. He wiped his hand across his face and then looked like he was going to apologize. Instead he hunched his shoulders and stomped off to the woodshed.

After I checked to make sure that Jessie was still sleeping I followed him out there. I found him swinging the ax too crazy to be safe. Then he saw me watching him and that seemed to upset him further and he chunked the blade into the stump and stormed towards the front porch again. I wasn't sure what to do but it was beans to bullets I wasn't going to just leave him to hurt himself like he seemed bent on doing.

He was slouched on the granite blocks that served as the front stairs. I approached him like he was sweating dynamite. I wasn't afraid of him but this was too much like the old Mark for me not to know that no matter the vibes he was throwing off he still needed me to at least try and be there when he was ready to open up. Yeah, Mark and I had gotten on each other's nerves when we were kids but at the same time I think we must have told each other stuff that we'd never have revealed to another living soul and that was because we refused to back down from the other's quills.

Mark seemed to cave in on himself a little as the initial tension of whatever was hounding him finally broke … but the breaking seemed to break him a little bit by bit. His next words were shockers.

"I saw Kelly," he said in a dead voice.

Every possible problem began to slide through my brain like left over pickled okra juice gone bad. She was bringing more charges of child endangerment against Mark. She was going to take Jessie. She was accusing him of dereliction with regard to Cici … or worse. She was going to take Jessie. Mark found he still had feelings for her. She was going to take Jessie.

I didn't know what to say. The horrible what-if's were slicing my brain … and heart … to ribbons. Mark finally turned to look me full in the face and his eyes were haunted scaring me even more. Whatever it was words wouldn't be enough to fix it. I worried that nothing would be enough.

But I had to do something. I couldn't just sit there. I put my arm around him and I finally felt how badly he was shaking beneath the light jacket he still wore. He turned into my one-armed hug giving me the courage to wrap my other arm around him and pull him close. The tighter I held him the harder he shook until it was all I could do to keep us from falling off the steps. From over Mark's shoulder I saw Micah glide down the path doing his best not to get noticed and break whatever spell Mark and I were under.

I wondered at that for a moment until I realized it was some kind of guy thing where they pretend that others of their kind don't have emotional break downs. And that was precisely what it seemed Mark was having but I still didn't know the reason for it beyond that he'd seen Kelly. He wasn't crying but in hindsight it might have been better had he allowed himself to. The poison might have been purged a little faster.

I started to get more worried; his skin had gone cold and clammy. I finally managed to coax him up and into the cabin but he didn't have the energy to make it far before he collapsed onto the settee in the front room. I built a small fire hoping to warm him from the chill that practically radiated from his body.

"Where's Jessie?" he mumbled from where his head hung over into his hands.

"He played hard all day and tired himself out. He may sleep straight through the night as hard as he is sleeping right now." After a moment I opened my mouth to ask him what was wrong when he beat me to it as if waiting only long enough to make sure his son was taken care of.

"I … I saw Kelly," he said again in a voice that sounded like he was in danger of being sick.

"You … you said that before. You mean Kelly … as in Jessie's … as in your …?" Frankly I didn't want to connect her to either Jessie or Mark but the fact remained that she was and I was jealous of her even though I'd never willingly admit it.

"Yeah," he shuddered. Right then and there the quality of the shudder let me know that I had nothing to fear that Mark had rediscovered he had feelings for his ex-wife. But something was definitely wrong and I waited with fear to find out what it was.

"She … she … oh God Del. She was like them people. Those zombie people. Sick. She didn't even recognize me. I don't think … I … I'm not for certain but … I think she is going blind or something … her eyes …"

I could feel the horror he must have experienced. Mentally running through the inventory of my first aid stuff I asked quietly, "Where is she now?" I didn't expect that answer I got.

"On a refugee truck heading west to a work farm."

His words fell like rocks in a quiet pond stirring up my thoughts even more. I wasn't sure what to say but I tried to think of him and Jessie. "You … you could … I mean … here … bring her I mean … um …" I sounded like Yoda, words all out of order but making a little bit of sense anyway.

Mark turned to look at me, disbelief on his face. "No. Absolutely no," he said definitively.

"I … I only meant …"

He swallowed painfully past whatever emotions were clogging up his throat. "I know what you meant and for Jessie's sake I …" He stopped and scrubbed his hands across his face. Slowly he sat up straight and then eased back into the cushions and afghan that lined the back of the old-style sofa. "No. I … I made the decision to let her go with the rescue workers. We don't have the … the necessary to…" He faded again for a moment but finally continued, "Del, after your Dad, I couldn't ask you to go through it all again. The head … manager … whatever he was … the boss rescue worker said they have the facilities where they were heading to take care of cases like Kelly's. She may never regain her full sight – or any of it – or her mind. She's broke in her head, maybe permanently, maybe not. No one can say for sure. There are lots of people like her apparently. Some charity groups are setting up programs to retrain people in blindness survival and better daily living skills. No one is going to have the capacity to simply babysit large numbers of people like that. That guy, he said the goal is to teach them to be more independent and less of a burden, get them to understand they have to take an active role in their own survival, permanent disability or not."

I wasn't taking the time to process things as I should have and opened my mouth around a question as it occurred to me. "So these people seem to be on the up and up? They aren't just going to put these people they 'rescue' into slave camps?"

Mark got defensive immediately. "As far as I could tell. I did the best I could."

I hadn't meant to cause him more pain and mentally kicked myself for letting my mouth slip in gear before I had checked for oncoming traffic. "Of course you did. That's not what I meant. I'm … I'm sorry Mark. I know … well no I don't … I've heard how hard you had it … Oh Lord … I can't find the right words. I seem to be making a banquet out of my own feet." I felt like crawling in a hole with embarrassment.

He turned his head and looked at me and then a ghost of a smile slid across his face for a moment. "I've been feeling like that since lunch as I kept trying to explain to people why I …" He stopped, sighed, and then said, "I did the best I could. I'm not sure it was the best someone else could have done but it's the best I could do and no one else was stepping up." I sat closer to him trying to giving him the support that he must have thought he wasn't getting before. "I … I tried to get her on a train heading south to her parents but Florida has closed the border for the year and on top of that no one has heard from Kelly's parents since I last spoke to them … or as far as the aid workers can tell that have been trying to get information out of Kelly for the last couple of weeks."

Last couple of weeks? I wanted to ask more but Mark continued, "Orlando is apparently doing OK but the retirees in the state overall … a lot of retirees around the country and people with health problems and other stuff … have really suffered as the medicines they were taking have disappeared."

That I could understand. "We experienced that with Dad. How has she survived this long if she has been this bad off?"

He shrugged. "Kelly's … she's a survivor. She always liked to act like she was a hot house orchid but she wasn't. Her mom was which kind of makes me wonder but her dad was … was bone deep tough. Kelly wanted to seem like her mom, all delicate and needing taking care of but underneath all that play acting she was like her old man. You should have seen her fight when …" He stopped, a little choked up in spite of himself and what Kelly had done to him in the past. "Del I barely recognized her. All that crazy coloring and junk she did to her hair is gone. I … as well as I thought I knew her I nearly didn't recognize her except for a couple of tats she has and … and the fact that even as bad as she looks I can still see where Jessie gets some of his coloring. She looks like she's been used hard at some point; scars where there weren't any before. She … she smelled like … like she wasn't taking care of herself. I don't know how she survived … she just did. But I have to think of our survival too. Kelly would have been a liability and … and a personal problem for us. I know what I sound like I …"

I immediately fired up. "People better not say a dang word or I'll …"

"Easy tiger," he whispered into my hair. "It's just the way things are. I lived with people talking before, I just don't want to bring it into our relationship. I had hoped people would let the past die but … but this could bring it all back up again. As long as you understand we'll be OK. I'll … I'll just have to face Jessie when he gets older." I finally understood that that last was what he was really worried about. Hang what everyone else thought, he was worried his son wouldn't understand.

We'd have to face that when the time came. I'm sure there was more to it than Mark was letting on and I had to trust him to spell it out when he was ready. I also had to trust that the decisions made now would continue to hold up in the future as good ones.

I can't say that I wasn't sorry not to be turned into Kelly's caregiver. For Jessie's sake … and for Mark's … I had to make the offer and I would have done it too, but I'd be lying if I didn't admit I was grateful it hadn't come to it. That might make me a selfish person but so be it. Dad raised me better and so did the Aunts, but I was me and at that moment I was relieved not to have to find the Christian charity for a woman who had broken so many hearts in the pursuit of her own desires.

I walked into the kitchen to find that Micah had been into the food. I didn't mind, I had made plenty. It also made me smile a bit to know that my brother still enjoyed my cooking. It wasn't much but it kept my emotional scale from becoming totally weighed down with sorrows I suspected would visit us again in the future.

I put a plate together and turned to carry it out to Mark only to find that he had followed me. "I'm not sure I can eat Del."

"Try. It isn't going to do Kelly any good for you to let yourself get sick because you feel bad about doing what you had to do."

"You understand? I mean, really understand?"

I debated on how much to say. Too little would make him think I was condemning him and too much would condemn me. "Mark, we promised each other that we'd always be honest with each other. If you think that what you did makes you look bad then just hear what I'm saying. I'm … I'm relieved I don't have to be Kelly's caregiver. I could do it for your sake and for Jessie's but I'm … I'm glad I don't have to. I've never met her yet I don't like her … for a lot of reasons … but mostly because she had you first. I know that sounds juvenile but that's what I feel. And it makes me mad at myself that I feel this way and maybe with time I could have overcome it … out of compassion or whatever … but again, I'm glad I don't have to. I'm not always a nice person Mark."

He took the plate from my hand and took it over to the table and sat down. He looked at me and asked, "Aren't you going to eat?"

"Didn't you just hear what I said?"

"Yeah. Yeah I did. And pardon me for being a guy but …" He stood back up, walked over to me, and bent me over backwards with a kiss so powerful it would have rattled my fillings if I had had any. He had to put me in a chair or I would have slid bonelessly to the floor.

"What … on … earth?" I whispered through nearly bruised lips.

"Del … you make my life so much easier. Better too. Bringing Kelly into this house would have been all kinds of bad. But you would have let me do it just so I wouldn't have to feel guilty. You would have done it for Jessie. And eventually – and you can deny this if you want to but I know it's the truth – you would have done it for Kelly's sake too even if she turned out to be a witch on wheels. You are a lot more like your aunts than you realize but at the same time you are you. I know you can be hard, but I've never seen you be hard unless you have to be. That's the main difference between you and Kelly. Kelly may have 'had me first' but you are the one that will have me last and in the end that's all I care about."

Well ring my bell, ears, and tail. For a guy who swore up and down at one point that he was ruined for romance he sure knew how to get to me. And I sure as heck wasn't going to look a gift horse in the mouth and try and talk him out of it. I'm occasionally stubborn but I try and avoid stupid when at all possible.

We sat and ate, talked about the rest of his day and mine, and even got a little silly about what we wanted for a wedding. Every day seemed to have its bit of drama to deal with but this was pretty over the top and we both needed to work through it before trying to put it behind us. Jessie never did wake up and eventually we were both so wore out that we went to bed. Mark had finished helping set up the barriers to the townies from heading out this way en masse but he'd promised to help dig out a basement foundation so that John could start moving his house. I'd be alone again tomorrow but I'd put the time to good use; my To Do List never seemed to get any shorter.